That was only okay, actually. I wasn't blown away by it or anything. I'm starting to think I'm not a fan of samurai.
Zatoichi is a name with a high cultural profile in Japan. He's a blind masseur, gambler and swordsman who was created by the novelist Kan Shimozawa and was played by Shintaro Katsu over more than a quarter of a century. They did 25 films starring him during 1962-1973, overlapping with 112 episodes of a live-action TV series in 1972-1974. Katsu himself directed a 26th Zatoichi film in 1989, but then died a few years later and that seemed to be the end of the character. Not so. We've since had the 2003 Takeshi Kitano film which I'll be talking about here, followed by a 2008 film called Ichi
in which the lead character is Zatoichi's daughter (also of course both blind and lethal).
On top of all that, Takeshi Kitano is a big name in Japanese cinema in his own right. He wrote, directed and starred in this remake, which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and went on to take a bunch of other awards too.
However is it fun to watch? On the upside, it has Takeshi Kitano killing people. That's good. However on the downside, he's a relatively peripheral character compared with the Zatoichi of the original films and most of the other characters are unsympathetic and/or a bit boring. Pretty much everyone else is either stupid, rude, evil or else never shows any facial expression and is liable to just sit there like a block of wood. I realise that this is a Japanese thing towards which I'm being culturally insensitive, but these people are freaks. Do they have mental processes? Don't they get bored? Perhaps it's giving an insight into the minds of those who've suffered a life of tragedy, but frankly even from them it's dull. However when the super-skilled ronin starts doing it, I presume I'm meant to be marvelling at his coolness and admiring his mental discipline, but in fact I was wondering about how badly he was stunting his brain and how many years he had left before senility.
In fairness though, that's probably not going to be an issue. Shall we talk life expectancy?
That's not to say that the cast have no character, though. On the contrary, there's quite a wide variety of personalities here. I can't say I felt particularly affectionate towards them, but one or two are downright eccentric. We've got the Block of Wood (i.e. the ronin) and lots of criminals. We've got my favourite character, a cool old lady who lets Takeshi stay at her place. There's also a comedy buffoon and a fat retard who runs around half-naked with a spear all day because he thinks he's a samurai. Actually even the regular guys quite often do stupid things, which can be amusing when they're holding swords at the time. Most of the men are pretty rude, even the blameless locals who are getting shaken down by gangsters, but I think that's just the contemporary masculine idiom and I shouldn't be reacting as I would if someone walked up to me in the street today and talked to me like that. It's the Edo period, after all, albeit late enough for a gun or two to have made its way into the country.
Most important though are a pair of geisha, who have a secret that's obvious as soon as you see them and the real surprise is that the locals are so slow to notice. They too are doing the "block of wood" thing and when we first meet them they're murdering someone, but despite appearances they're on a mission to avenge the tragedies of their childhood. We learn about this in flashbacks. The massacre is brutal but what you'd expect from this kind of film, but less so is the scene where a ten-year-old boy sells his body to a passer-by. Wow. His dialogue in Japanese is even more blunt than the translation in the subtitles, by the way. All this explains why they're so emotionally distant, although don't think I'd forgotten the scene where they'd been going to murder Zatoichi and his friend for their money. Did I care about them? Not really.
The most significant thing about this film, in my opinion, is its 1970s-ness. Everyone knows that 1970s cinema is rougher, nastier and more immediate than that of any other decade. Its stories don't work in quite the same way. It even looks different. There have been attempts to recapture the decade in modern films, but I think Takeshi does a more thoroughgoing job of this than anyone I've ever seen. He's remaking an iconic seventies franchise, so you can understand why he's also trying to recapture the aesthetic. I'm not entirely convinced about the wisdom of what he's achieved here, but I can't deny that in its own apparently cheap and stupid way it's a breathtaking achievement. This film doesn't just feel like a tribute to its era. If it hadn't been for the CGI, you'd have assumed it's a real seventies film that somehow got misplaced for thirty years. It looks right. It's got the slightly ugly colour palette. It's got the "I don't give a shit" plotting, in which the story just does whatever it wants and Robert McKee can go suck one. It's got death and injury happening sometimes by accident for laughs. There's something rough-edged and slightly uncontrolled about 1970s cinema and this film's tapping into that, even if we're basically talking about the Japanese equivalent of dime westerns.
The CGI isn't good, though. I've heard it said that Takeshi deliberately made the blood look artificial, to soften the shock to the audience, and I can believe it. This is the same country that gave the world kaijuu films with special effects and monster costumes that steered clear of realism deliberately. A bigger problem as far as I'm concerned is that it looks bad in a 21st century way, but let's not pretend that this film was aiming for a documentary style. Look at the musical numbers, in which the film's instruments are hoes and rain. More specifically look at the song-and-dance ending, which seems to have freaked out quite a few American viewers and is thus to be treasured for that alone. Hell, look at the moment where for no reason the two geisha revert to childhood selves in mid-dance. It's just a CGI morph, but I found that an oddly powerful piece of imagery and I didn't even really like those two characters.
For a while, I wasn't sure if there were themes here. On the face of it, it's just a mish-mash of the usual gangsters, thugs, killers, extortioners and avengers. The characters' idea of honour is liable to be a bit disconcerting, but that's because they're samurai and/or losers. However I then realised that the film is occasionally linking combat and idiocy, as with the scarecrow, the half-naked retard and the comedy sword-fighting lesson, while the most important thematic factor of all is the wife and home life of the ronin. He may be a block of wood, but he's arguably just as much the film's protagonist as is Zatoichi himself. Yes, we're definitely looking at a theme here. We're not meant to be admiring these people. To a certain extent, I think the reaction I had to this film was the reaction Takeshi wanted.
Mind you, I think there may be some cultural assumptions. Zatoichi spends an awfully long time gambling with tattooed yakuza, for instance. Admittedly this is a character point since that's part of how he makes his living, but I think we're meant to find it more shocking than I in fact did. The main reason I wouldn't want to spend hours gambling for money like Zatoichi is that he's playing a fairly dull game and personally I'm more interested in cards.
I've been fairly negative at times about this film, but overall I'd say I enjoyed it. It's surprisingly funny, Takeshi is cool and as always the action scenes are better for having swords in them rather than guns. The ending's good, both thanks to the villagers' musical celebrations and with Zatoichi carving up his enemies. Even the film's basic conceit seems far more convincing than you'd think, with Takeshi successfully convincing you that he really is this blind dude who can make swords do whatever he wants but has to listen hard to do it. The villains aren't all as badass as you might have expected, but some are. If you have to watch an action movie, you could certainly do worse.